Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Transient Hypofrontality Edge

This hypothesis explains how running can alter our consciousness.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Transient hypofrontality. Now if that isn’t a cocktail party turn of phrase, I ask you: what is?

So, what is “transient hypofrontality”?

Let me illustrate with an example: Meg, as I’ll call her, began jogging at a critical moment in her life. Her marriage was falling apart and she had many responsibilities including a young child, a pet dog, a large house, and a demanding job. For her, running provided a distraction from her burdens and challenges. Over a couple of months, her body transformed. She felt emotionally better and physically stronger.

One might expect those changes—although, being new to exercise, Meg didn’t know about these positive effects. What truly surprised her was that she found that she thought differently when she ran. She was able to sort out solutions to big issues she was facing. She developed creative solutions. She found herself mentally organizing tasks in more holistic ways, sometimes while she ran and sometimes shortly thereafter. She was hooked.

What was happening? Transient hypofrontality.

Let’s unpack the language of the term. Transient means temporary—so what’s occurring only lasts for a little while. “Hypo” is a prefix meaning “less,” as in, say, hypothermia (being too cold)
And frontality refers to the frontal lobes of our brains (the prefrontal cortex), the location of much of our sequential, orderly, systematic thinking and decision-making.

Transient hypofrontality, then, means that for a while, under certain conditions, the focused thinking part of our brain gets a rest. This allows other parts and functions to become more dominant.

Dr. Arne Dietrich, a professor at the American University of Beirut, came up with the term transient hypofrontality. He’s written extensively on the subject, and he even gave a TedX Talk about it. Dietrich suggests that physical activity “forces” the brain to redistribute brain resources (a process known as down-regulation). If you’re engaged in a competitive sport, you need to make a variety of complex decisions. Those will involve the prefrontal cortex. But if you’re on a long-distance run in a beautiful park, your mind lets go of that prefrontal engagement; you may experience an alteration in consciousness.

Here’s how Dietrich puts it: The prolonged disengagement of higher cognitive centers in the prefrontal cortex offers a neural mechanism that provides insight into the alteration of consciousness known as the runner’s high. Some of the phenomenologically unique features of this state, such as experiences of timelessness, living in the here and now, reduced awareness of one’s surroundings, peacefulness (being less analytical), and floating (diminished working memory and attentional capacities), are consistent with a state of frontal hypo-function. Even abstruse feelings such as unity with the self or nature might be more explicable considering that the prefrontal cortex is the very structure that provides us with the ability to segregate, differentiate, and analyze the environment.

Does this mean that every time you run you’ll experience this altered consciousness? Well, no—but perhaps it explains Meg’s experience. Once you’ve tapped into this experience, you can attend to it and maybe even evoke it.

As a reward for reading this far, here’s the big reveal: I was describing my own experience which I disguised as “Meg.” And in actuality, trying to understand this process of thinking differently, more holistically and creatively was what got me started on the path of sport psychology!

Here are the takeaways about transient hypofrontality:

  • This experience, or aspects of it, is something that you can cultivate. People have tried (and failed) to create the runners high or to make “flow” happen. The very effort, of course, defeats the purpose. On the other hand, you can create the conditions that will increase the likelihood of experiencing this altered state of consciousness. And there’s some research to suggest that walking, at least, may enhance creative thinking.
  • It’s in some ways like a dream state, or like the thoughts and ideas that may float through your mind while you’re taking a shower. In fact, as you become more aware of this type of experience, you may find that you notice or “catch” it in situations where you don’t need to have that active hyperfrontality grinding away.
  • You can be deliberate about invoking this state, at least some of the time. Like lucid dreaming, you might set out on a run (or perhaps some other vigorous, repetitive activity such as swimming or cycling) and ask yourself an important question or issue. Then put it aside and just notice if an internal response shows up. Although I suspect that Dietrich would cringe at this explanation, my more mystical self thinks of this as your “silver-lining voice,” the part of you that has the capacity to fully understand your self and “knows” what it is that is most central to your being.
  • But be forewarned: Indeed, like dreams, transient hypofrontality is indeed transient: unless you shift into active and intentional thinking and remembering, thoughts and ideas that come to you are likely to float away. If you want to recall any of this at a later time, turn it into words, perhaps key words dictated into your phone or written down on a piece of paper. Some of the richness of the experience may get lost in translation, but the kernel will still be there.

What do you think? Have you experienced transient hypofrontality? I’d love to hear from you on this subject, whether in a comment here or through a direct note.

More from Kate F. Hays Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today